This week on “Vintage Eye,” we’re bringing our focus to the third musketeer of Omega’s iconic “Class of ‘57” trio: we’ve already covered the Seamaster 300 and the Speedmaster; this time around we turn our attention to the Railmaster.
This distinctive watch, like its aforementioned sister pieces, was released in 1957 and targeted at scientists and technicians working in the presence of strong electromagnetic fields (vintage picture below, via Antiquorum). It competed directly with similarly-developed watches like the Rolex Milgauss, released in 1956, and the IWC Ingenieur, released in 1954, with its focus on use by railroad workers, from which it aptly derived its name. The original Railmaster, the CK 2914, worked to differentiate itself as the anti-magnetic watch of choice with a magnetic resistance of 1,000 gauss made possible by a copper-finished movement, double case, extra-thick dial, and iron dusting throughout. However, the piece did not prove to have as much appeal, or staying power, as its ’57 counterparts or its contemporary competitors, and eventually ceased production in 1963. In recent years, the series has been revived in short production runs numerous times, and in 2017 it returned to the market in a special vintage homage to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its release.
The new release, the Omega Railmaster 60th Anniversary Limited Edition Master Chronometer (Ref. 126.96.36.199.01.002), is a 38-mm, highly legible, steel-on-steel historical tribute. The piece features an angular case on a matching steel bracelet updated with modern finishing and more robust construction, the clasp of which features a retro-styled Omega logo. Its black dial, found within the simple flat bezel traditional of the Railmaster, uses faux-patina Super-LumiNova details throughout on its printed triangular hour markers and broad-arrow handset. Of its other dial features, you’ll notice the vintage-style Omega logo toward the top of the dial and the cursive Railmaster logo towards the bottom, the printed white minute track between the hour indices, and the quarter-hour Arabic numerals.
Beneath the dial, and hidden behind a solid engraved caseback, is the automatic Calibre 8806. This movement is extremely accurate and certified as a “Master Chronometer” by METAS, the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology; is finished using rhodium plating with Geneva waves; has a power reserve up to 55 hours; and has a magnetic resistance 15 times that of its historical predecessor, at 15,000 gauss. The watch is limited to 3,557 pieces, and has been listed by the brand at $6,800.
Omega, to its credit, has been leading the market in the vintage re-edition trend for the past few years, and this most recent edition of the Railmaster is another example of the brand’s expertise in navigating historical tribute alongside modern development. At 38 mm, this modern reissue is aesthetically very similar to original CK 2914 not only in size but in its dial configuration, vintage logos, case, and bracelet style. Of the “major” differences — outside of finishing practices and the capabilities of modern manufacturing — not all of the original watches featured an engraved Seahorse on their casebacks, and most if not all of the original watches featured something called a Naiad crown indicated by a small “Y” symbol meant to assist in improving water resistance. However, as the Seahorse is one of the most iconic elements of the vintage piece, and the Naiad crown is no longer used, neither of these changes is of much relevance.
There are various other differences between the historical and modern pieces; many of these just happen to be hidden within luxury finishing and beneath the dial. Notably, there is clearly a higher level of manufacturing throughout in the modern watch, as seen in the finishing of the case, the improved strength of the bracelet, the tightness of the crown to the case, and the highly luminescent Super-LumiNova faux-patina detailing. The most significant changes are to be found in the movement: whereas the original piece used the copper-plated, manually-wound Omega Caliber 284 and could resist up to only 1,000 gauss, the modern watch uses the rhodium-plated, automatic Omega Caliber 8806 and is resistant up to 15,000 gauss — a level of anti-magnetism common throughout most of the brand’s watches produced today.
To me, the vintage Railmaster is one of the most fascinating pieces in Omega’s history — one hidden in the shadows behind the famed Seamaster 300 and Speedmaster (all three tribute pieces pictured above), but whose lack of mass appeal has generated a large cult following among vintage-watch collectors. The original Railmaster was, as its name and historical purpose indicates, a utilitarian piece. It was meant to be used by those who needed a durable watch that could resist some of the stresses their jobs entailed. This modern re-issue works to channel this original purpose and design, yet within a luxury package meant to appeal to the vintage enthusiast. Now, what still remains without a re-issue is the only watch with possibly an even greater mystique in the brand’s history, the Ranchero. If Omega is intent on continuing its growing legacy of vintage re-creations, it may have already considered re-releasing that watch for its own 60th anniversary in 2018.
For the most recent article in the “Vintage Eye” series, in which we compare the Bulova Chronograph C “Stars & Stripes” to its historical predecessor, click here.
Caleb Anderson is a freelance writer with a primary focus on vintage watches. Since first learning about horology, he has garnered extensive knowledge in the field, and spends much of his time sharing his opinions among other writers, collectors, and dealers. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on many topics, and a casual runner.